During his inaugural address last January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom made only a passing reference to wildfires and never mentioned the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. Both soon became inescapable topics.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy barely three weeks after the Democratic governor was sworn in, triggering a series of events that defined the former San Francisco mayor’s first year as leader of the country’s most populous state.
Newsom worked with state lawmakers to create financial stability for PG&E and the state’s two other investor-owned utilities; developed a plan that required them to strengthen their safety measures; and forcefully reacted when the utilities shut off the lights to millions of Californians.
“He certainly had baptism by fire, and I’m not even kidding,” said state Senate leader Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat.
PG&E’s bankruptcy was prompted by an estimated $30 billion in liability from wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018, including the state’s deadliest and most destructive blaze, which killed 85 and nearly leveled the city of Paradise.
Fearing further financial consequences, PG&E instituted wide-scale blackouts when weather created high fire danger. In previous years, utility lines and other equipment sparked fires when winds were extreme.
Newsom declared he “owned” the blackouts and would fight to keep them from happening again, putting himself squarely in the center of an issue that had prompted a public outcry. He also blasted the utilities for years of poor maintenance and a lax focus on safety.
“Newsom has shown a willingness to really engage on a topic that wasn’t of his choosing, and that’s an important hallmark of a strong governor,” said Michael Wara, a researcher on climate and energy policy at Stanford University who has worked with the state on energy and wildfire issues.
State Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican whose district includes Paradise, said Newsom has done a good job of changing wildfire policy, fighting to compensate victims and holding PG&E accountable.
“The governor and I don’t agree on a whole lot ... but I think that we have found actually a lot of agreement and mutual cooperation when it comes to wildfire policy,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher even praised Newsom for working well with the Trump administration to procure federal disaster resources.
“I think a lot of this stuff is show,” he said of Newsom’s ongoing battles on Twitter and elsewhere with President Donald Trump.
Regardless, Newsom’s feuds with the Republican president attracted much attention. Perhaps the most consequential was the Trump administration’s efforts to stop California from continuing to set its own auto emissions regulations. In response, Newsom teamed with four major automakers to go against Washington.
When he wasn’t battling with the president, Newsom was advancing policy at a frenetic pace. He began the year by placing a moratorium on executions for the more than 730 people on California’s death row, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The move won praise from criminal justice reform advocates and scorn from families of people killed by convicted criminals who had been sentenced to death.
Elsewhere, he checked off a litany of items in his progressive wish list. Among them: health care to more young immigrants living in the country illegally, expanded subsidies for middle-income people to buy health insurance, an increased tax credit for working families, a ban on for-profit prisons, and stricter rules for when police use deadly force.
All of the moves drew sharp criticism from the state’s Republican minority, and some California residents have started a long-shot campaign to recall Newsom from office.
Newsom stumbled at times on message, sowing confusion early on about the future of California’s troubled high-speed rail project and injecting last-minute uncertainty into an impassioned debate over exemptions for childhood vaccinations.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a fellow Democrat, said it’s been a year of learning between Newsom and lawmakers after eight years of dealing with Gov. Jerry Brown.
“We’ve had an incredibly productive year, and I consider him a partner, and I know he is willing to work through things,” Rendon said.
Atkins, however, found herself at odds with Newsom when he vetoed her bill aimed at blunting environmental rollbacks from the Trump administration. Environmental groups, normally allies, were upset.
“I think he had some growing pains that were frustrating in the first year,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California.
Homelessness has become a top issue in California, and Trump took delight in highlighting the problem, saying the state’s major cities were “going to hell.”
Newsom has touted a $1 billion investment the state made in 2019 to address homelessness and the law he signed enacting a statewide cap on annual rent increases to help address the lack of affordable housing. But those moves have yet to produce visible results.
Still, Newsom said in an October interview with The Associated Press that his administration has done more than any other on the two issues.
“I can’t solve that overnight,” he said. But “we’re not being neglectful in that space, and I think the consequences of that will reverberate in cities large and small, but also will leave clues for other states that are struggling with the same.”
Gallagher said he thinks Newsom and Democrats have spent too much time focused on failed solutions to homelessness and housing. The assemblyman said the state needs to reduce government red tape and barriers to building.
“He needs to push a little bit harder maybe against his base on the issue to really see results,” Gallagher said.
Newsom’s overall approval rating has stayed between 44% and 48% during his first year in office, according to surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California. About 46% of people approve of his handling of the wildfire issues.
In a recent interview with the AP, Brown said a governor shouldn’t be measured until after a full four-year term.
“I think it’s a mistake to look to the first year and draw a lot of big conclusions,” he said.